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The profitable genetics of paper

A paper and cellulose company sponsors the genome project of the eucalyptus tree

VOTORANTIM CELULOSE E PAPELProject is going to identify 15,000 genes of the leaves, flowers and of the wood so as to decipher problems and to select cuttingsVOTORANTIM CELULOSE E PAPEL

The paper and cellulose industries, and those producing products from the forest, are betting on a functional genome project to increase the productivity of the eucalyptus forest, to reduce production costs and to reinforce their competitiveness on the Brazilian and international markets. A group formed by Votorantim Celulose e Papel (VCP), Ripasa Celulose e Papel, Suzano de Papel e Celulose e Duratex, are participating in the project ForESTs, Eucalyptus Genome Sequencing Project Consortium, of the sequencing of the eucalyptus tree genome, which is being carried out by the Agronomical and Environmental Genome – AEG Project of FAPESP.

This is the first genome project to be financed through the Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE) program. The expectation is that the functional analysis of the genes of the wood, roots, leaves and flowers, will permit the deciphering of the origin of the problems that damage the development of the plant and will consequently favor the selection of improved cuttings.

“During the first phase of the program, we are going to produce 100,000 sequences (ESTs) so as to find, at least 15,000 genes”, says Helaine Carrer, from the Biological Science Department of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ), of the University of São Paulo (USP), who is the project’s coordinator. In the second phase, the research is going to identify the differently expressed genes in the various parts of the tree, through the use of the technique named microarrays, which makes possible the association of these genes with determined biological characteristics of the tree. The objective will be to identify their resistance to different diseases, tolerances and stress, quality of wood and other agronomical characteristics. The project even foresees the development of a system for the analysis of data for the selection of better clones of the eucalyptus tree.

The research is advancing swiftly: in less than two months, 35,000 sequences have already been deposited in the bio information technology bank of the project and close to 10,000 genes have so far obtained. “The first phase will be completed in February, when we then move on to make the functional analysis”, forecasts Helaine. However, the practical interest of the sponsoring partners is in the second phase. “The results will have a strong impact on forestry productivity and in the production of cellulose. We could use the information as a marker for the selection of new genetic materials”, suggests Celina Ferraz do Valle, responsible for the project at the VCP company.

In this first phase, the cost of the sequencing of the genes – budgeted at US$ 530,000 – is being financed by FAPESP. The companies are participating with a further R$ 500,000 being used for the payment of the personnel linked to the 20 laboratories that are integrated into the AEG network. During the second phase, the companies are getting ready to invest something in the order of R$ 1.2 million in the functional analysis of the genes.

“We are dealing with a risk project, but we have confidence in the team and we are searching for a tool that will make possible assisted improvement and a precocious selection of the cuttings, by means of a biochip”, says Raul Chaves, from Duratex, a company that maintains 70,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus forest for the production of wooden planks for the furniture and laminate industry.

Competitive advantages
The eucalyptus tree, perfectly adaptable to the climatic conditions of the country, has been the preferred tree of the pulp, paper and cellulose industries since the 40s. Currently, eucalyptus forests cover close to 3 million hectares of national territory. The forestry industry that uses the eucalyptus as its raw material – pulp, paper and cellulose – represents something in terms of 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 8% of all exports and employs around 150,000 people. The companies’ investment in research raised the average annual productivity of trees from 12m³ per hectare in the 70s, to close to 40m3 in the 90s. “Without this gain in productivity, we would have needed an area one and a half times greater for the same results”, says Luiz Cornacchioni, the Planning Manager of the Suzano company, whose eucalyptus forests total 86,000 hectares.

The classical improvements guaranteed to Brazil the condition of the world’s largest producer of short fiber cellulose, produced from the eucalyptus. Until the year 2005, the paper, cellulose and forestry products industry, have plans to invest the expressive total of US$ 6.6 billion dollars to consolidate the market. However, the gains in productivity conquered have been the results of investments of classical genetic improvements, which have a rhythm similar to the growth of the tree. “All that we are reaping today is the fruit of research done ten years ago and of seven years of field operations”, observes José Maria de Arruda Mendes Filho, General Manager of the VCP company.

The slowness could jeopardize the competitive advantages accumulated over the last two decades, as the Asian countries, who have adopted aggressive fiscal programs for the planting of the eucalyptus, could take the lead. “We need to find new technologies and bet on that one which is at the top. Genomics is a black box, but we are curious and we’re paying to see”, says the General Manager of the VCP company.

Future partnership
The companies who joined the consortium don’t have any doubt that molecular biology could be an excellent tool to boost this process and to make advances in the conquest of new markets. “The results will allow us to increase production in the forest and in the industry, with production gains in the manufacturing of cellulose and paper”, says Izabel Menezes de Bulhões Gomes, responsible for the area of Technology Development of Ripasa, a company that registers 71,200 hectares of forest, being 56,200 hectares of eucalyptus and 15,000 hectares of permanent preservation.

Similar projects of the sequencing of the ESTs of tress such as the Pine and Bircg have been under development in the United States and European countries for close to two years. “And they have not as yet reached the 50,000 sequences mark”, reveals Helaine. “Brazil could overtake them in the analysis of the functional genome of the tree, since the research infrastructure of the Genome Project set up y FAPESP is unique: it involves 20 laboratories working efficiently in a network.”

Over the last thirty years, the major part of the research into the eucalyptus was developed in a partnership between the Forestry Research Institute (Ipef) – that represents the companies – and the Department of Forestry Sciences of ESALQ. Recently, with the development of the industries and the increase in demand for better materials with specific growth characteristics, the companies have begun to invest in their own research programs – in many cases, with the support of universities and research institutes -, or in collaboration with governmental institutions.

The consortium formed for the sequencing and functional analysis of the genome of the eucalyptus inaugurates a new mode of partnership. The companies integrated into the consortium don’t have any doubts that they are dealing with a future partnership. “We are promoting the interaction between two communities: scientific and industrial. We have the raw material and we are going to look for ways in which to improve it”, says Mendes Filho, of Votorantim.